Word Gets Out

I didn’t want to talk about my cancer. But it’s not what you think

Word is slowly filtering out over the grapevine that I had a tumour removed from my colon, and am now undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate any lingering can­cer in my lymph nodes. Every so often I receive an email from someone who’s just heard and wants to offer warm thoughts, prayers, baked goods and so on. Certainly it’s gratifying to feel loved, but it felt a bit awkward, perhaps because I don’t share the perception that my cancer is –was – any big deal.

TOM CANTINE: He plays it straight. Photo by Buffy Goodman.

Sure, it’s a potentially life-threatening illness, but I’ve been a science geek since my dinosaur phase in kindergarten. I’ve been reading about biology, genetics and medicine for years, and so the word “cancer” has no special mystique. I don’t think about evil spirits or certain death or tired metaphors of heroic battles when I see the word, and I remember laughing out loud when I saw a newspaper horoscope that changed the name of Cancer the Crab to “Moon Children,” presumably to insulate those born under that sign from the bad juju of the C-word.

I’ve always seen the disease as just a particular set of mechanisms under which biological processes go awry, not at all surprising given the evolutionary history of our cells. Plus, I already knew that colon cancer in particular is highly treatable, so learning I had it didn’t inspire strong feelings of dread. I believe the surgery took out all the cancer I had, but I’m going ahead with the chemo just to be safe. Or safer – there’s no such thing as perfectly safe, with cancer or anything else.

So really, the only reaction I had to learning I had colon cancer was, “Ah, so that explains the constipation and fatigue,” and “Well then, what shall we do about it?”

There was no shock, no existential horror at suddenly being confronted with my own mortality. I was annoyed that the surgery would mean I’d miss my cousin’s wedding in California, and surgery and chemo aren’t pleasant, but the cancer itself? It was a simple fact and a practical problem to be addressed, not an omen of doom.

Even if my prognosis hadn’t been good, I didn’t need any diagnosis to tell me I’m going to die. Of course I’m going to die, as is everyone else, although not knowing when or how allows us to pretend we won’t. Well, I still don’t know when or how, so the diagnosis changes nothing. This cancer probably won’t get me, but another might, or I could be hit by a bus, or eaten by a bear. Sooner or later, I’ll meet some kind of end.

This is why I’ve felt awkward about people praying for me and thinking positive thoughts and so on: it’s almost a statistical certainty I’ll outlive some of those people. The attention paid to worrying about me would be much better spent concentrating on things like looking both ways before you cross the street. Or getting a colonoscopy, for that matter; if I’d done so earlier, I might have avoided some inconvenience and discomfort.

But I knew people would react this way. I didn’t want anyone to suffer an emotional upset for something that, to me, really isn’t a big deal. That’s why I tried to keep quiet about the diagnosis and treatment, hoping I could simply let people know once everything was a fait accompli, simply another little bit of Tom-related trivia to file away.

That worked pretty much, until after the surgery, anyway. I told a few people I was in the hospital, mostly on a need-to-know basis. But word gets out and treatment slows you down.

The upside? As a science geek, I was fascinated by all of the technology involved in the procedure, and while recovering from surgery involves considerable discomfort, I at least had no shortage of interesting and new experiences to keep my mind busy. Laparoscopic surgery is cool! Did you know they inflate your abdominal cavity with CO2 so they have room to work? I’d never actually been under general anaesthetic before. I had all of these experiences and observations to share with my friends once I was discharged.

So the word was out, and the grapevine got to work and the messages of concern and positive thoughts started to trickle in. But I’m not alarmed or upset or frightened. Why the fuss?

I’m beginning to understand that it isn’t really about me. Part of the story of my cancer is how my friends and family experience it. Yes, it’s great they care about me, but it’s also about their fears. One friend said she just wasn’t prepared for a world without Tom in it. And my father rightly pointed out that however unafraid I might be for myself, I’d feel differently if it were my son and not me. Or my father and not me, for that matter.

So I see that it’s important to some of my friends and relatives to comfort themselves with prayers and positive thinking, and more: that I know they are praying and thinking positive thoughts to my benefit. And knowing that they have this need, it’s no longer a burden to let them say so.

Who Needs to Know

I avoided telling most of my friends about my cancer until after the surgery, but my siblings were definitely in the need-to-know category. Several years ago, a dear friend of the family died of cancer. Her brother had had the same kind of cancer earlier, but had never told anyone about it, and thus deprived her of the opportunity to consult with her doctor about possible screening. So just about the first thing I did after my diagnosis was call up my sisters to update them: “The next time your doctor asks you if you have a family history of bowel cancer, you say YES.”

For more information on colon cancer screening, visit screeningforlife.ca and talk to your doctor. You may opt for earlier screening by colonoscopy if you have a parent, child or sibling who has had colon cancer or colon polyps.

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